Florida Secretary of State releases chad-free election proposal


Tuesday, March 20th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) _ Saying Florida's days of punchcard ballots are history, Secretary of State Katherine Harris shared her vision for a 21st-century solution to the state's maligned election system Tuesday.

Harris wants the state to lease precinct-based optical scanners for the 2002 election and to develop a ``voter-freedom'' system for 2004 that would let people cast ballots from anywhere in the state using a high-tech, direct-recording system yet to be developed.

While she also envisions a centralized voter database that would automatically update registration information, identify duplicates and remove dead voters from the rolls, lawmakers are having a hard time looking past the $200 million price tag on Harris' three-year plan.

House and Senate leaders have been cool to a temporary fix and Senate President John McKay has said the state should not pay to put scanners in each precinct.

Still, Harris is pushing the high-priced plan as a way of avoiding problems that left the presidential election in doubt for five weeks.

``I am guided by duty and conscience to pursue a comprehensive approach to reform, not a Band-Aid elixir that gives all of us some sense of reprieve before the next problem ... the next glitch ... the next outcry about process and fairness,'' she said.

Florida was the brunt of criticism as Democrats challenged the election and elections workers sifted relentlessly through reams of punchcard ballots until a U.S. Supreme Court decision ended recounts, giving George W. Bush a 537-vote victory over Al Gore.

The election reform package calls for lawmakers to spend $49 million this year, including an estimated $20 million to lease optical scanner systems for each precinct in the 41 counties not already using the technology.

Voters fill in bubbles next to a candidate's name and the scanners read the ballots. If there is a mistake, the machines kick the ballots out so they can be corrected.

Harris' plan also includes $3 million for a voter database and $25.5 million to develop voting technology to be used in every Florida precinct in 2004.

Harris' proposal would cost far more than what the House and Senate want to spend.

The Senate has allocated $20 million for election reform, but has not specified how it should be spent. The House budget sets aside $23 million.

McKay, R-Bradenton, has said leasing the scanners is a bad deal and the precinct-based technology is unnecessary.

House Speaker Tom Feeney, R-Oviedo, said House proposals ``hopefully will produce permanent solutions rather than temporary fixes.''

The Senate is considering a bill which would prevent local and state canvassing board members from political activities relating to races over which they have some authority.

Democrats criticized Harris for stopping recounts and certifying Bush's victory while also serving as an honorary co-chairwoman of Bush's campaign.

Division of Elections Director Clay Roberts said the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling that different voting standards in different counties creates an unequal and unfair voting system translates into the need for a statewide voting system.

``If we have different systems, we're going to be litigating that forever,'' Roberts said.

Oklahoma, which uses precinct-based optical scanners, is the only state to have a statewide voting system.

Jim Smith, co-chairman of an elections task force appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush, said Harris' proposal was ambitious.

``What is reliable and available and affordable for Florida right now is the optical scanner at the precinct level,'' Smith said.

In the wake of criticism over partisan influence, Harris' proposal removes much of the power of Florida's 67 county canvassing boards, shifting decisions on election disputes and recounts to the statewide election canvassing commission.

Harris also recommends provisional ballots which would let people vote if their registration is in question. Election officials would later verify the eligibility, and strike the vote if it were improper.

Harris wants county officials to have more time between primaries, runoff primaries and the general election.

Bush said that while he shared a common objective with Harris _ restoring voter confidence in the state's election system _ he wants lawmakers to approve a plan derived from the task force recommendations. Bush strongly recommends the precinct-based scan technology along with establishing statewide recount standards and a centralized voter database.

But, Bush said, ``The exact details are not as important as getting this done.''